So, here’s the sequel to another of last year’s surprises – the first novel, Creation Machine, was one of my ‘surprisingly good’ reads – one I enjoyed much, much more than I was expecting. It made my best of 2016 list at the end of the year.
Like Creation Machine, Iron Gods takes place in The Spin, an artificially created group of eighty-eight planets and two suns. This is a wonderful place to play, being varied in cultures and species.
However things are changing. Now ten thousand years after Creation Machine, things hinted at there are starting to happen. In the finest traditions of Asimov’s Galactic Empires, The Spin is in decline. The prosperous inner Core (aka ‘The Inside’) has been reduced to a mere eleven planets, with their main means of income coming from a prosperous slave trade from their slave-colony known as The Hive whilst The Outside is much less organised – a Wild West style frontier of cult groups and fringe radicals, mercenaries and outcasts.
We begin Iron Gods with the daring escape of five of the Hivers, led by Seldyan. Not only do they manage to escape what is normally a life sentence (if rather short), they then manage to capture a spaceship.
This leads to Harbour Master Hevalansa Vess being stripped of his executive position and sent under cover into The Hive to determine how Seldyan escaped.
Flamejob is now a cruise ship renamed Sunskimmer but five thousand years ago it was a battleship and it seems that Seldyan and her compatriots plan to resurrect the battleship’s lobotomised AI and bring it back to its previous use as a Main Battle Unit.
With Sunskimmer now (rather Iain M Banks-like) renamed Suck on This, the group set off for the colony of Web City, they find there a society which may not be what it appears to be. Underneath the chaotic lifestyles we see things are not necessarily what they seem to be. They also encounter The Green Star people, which results in a journey to a place that seems not to officially exist….
Here’s the good news – I enjoyed Iron Gods as much as, if not more than, Creation Machine. Pleasingly, it shows us different aspects of The Spin than Creation Machine, and so, rather like the planets of Jack Vance’s work, we get an idea that in Andrew’s writing there are many worlds out there to explore, but we are glimpsing small parts of a much bigger whole. There are parts of this plot that obliquely connect to Creation Machine, but it is not essential to the book. Though the focus of each novel is usually quite small, with the books being thousands of years apart we get the sense of epic-ness, that although we are reading about what seem like small events there is something happening that is unfolding over an enormous time-frame.
Most impressively, Iron Gods is where the Spin series ‘gets political’. This seems to involve a widening of scope as well. Whilst Creation Machine was in part a tale of courtly intrigue, Iron Gods is a tale of bigger politics, more of the role of interworld governments and political parties. It deals with greater issues – of refugees, forced migration and slavery, themes that will resonate with real world situations of the present.
However, whereas some things are different, some things remain slightly familiar. Plus ca change. Seldyan, like Fleare Haas before her, is a character with resolve and determination, whose life has been very different before we get to meet her in this novel. Her boyfriend, Merish, is similar to Fleare’s Muz in that they rely on each other to get things done. Through Iron Gods their relationship is explored and examined to give us a bigger, better picture of these characters, so that, again, the reader gets to care about them, even when tough decisions are made.
One of the things I liked most about Creation Machine was the resourcefulness of the science-fictional concepts and the bizarre alien lifeforms that Andrew drops into the story throughout – I liked the sentient atom cloud of the first novel and the horrific alien eels, for example. This inventiveness continues in Iron Gods – this time around I liked the bizarre idea of ‘The Hollowed’ – humanoid criminals and Hivers re-engineered into a form specifically designed for athletic racing, which others would gamble on. To be Hollowed means to have everything not needed for racing removed – so all organs from the lungs down are removed, with life support being administered by machines before and after a race. It is a brutally efficient means of portraying Mankind’s inhumanity to fellow humans. Andrew’s combination of strange planets, strange aliens and big SF ideas are still in evidence.
The ending of Iron Gods leaves things open to be resolved later. Whilst there is a conclusion there are still many elements to be resolved that will no doubt be addressed in the last book in the trilogy, Stone Clocks (due next year), Nevertheless, some of the events towards the end are not what the reader expects. For me this made Iron Gods a worthy successor to the potential realised in Creation Machine. There’s some really big ideas here. I suspect I am only just comprehending the true ambition of these books.
I really like this series.